Consent – Vanessa Springora

Translator – Natasha Lehrer

Every so often I read a blurb and just know a book’s contents are going to make my blood boil. This is one of those books.

In her memoir, Vanessa (V.) tells us about G.

G. is Gabriel Matzneff, a French author who, in his books, never attempts to hide his sexual assaults (he calls it love) of underage girls and his trips to the Philippines to sexually assault even younger boys. G. is someone who has won awards for detailing his crimes.

After they met at a party, G. quickly turned his attention to Vanessa.

I had just turned fourteen. He was almost fifty.

The fury for me came in waves, each time someone who could have (and should have) protected Vanessa failed to do so.

Her father is physically and emotionally absent; he doesn’t act on the outrage he feels when he learns of Vanessa’s ‘relationship’ with G.

Her mother allows it, even casually having dinner with her daughter and her rapist. Sure, her mother “consulted” her friends about him but none of them were “particularly disturbed”. This is the woman who made a deal with the devil:

Whatever the reason, her only intervention was to make a pact with G. He had to swear that he would never make me suffer.

The police are notified on a number of occasions but their efforts can hardly be accused of being an investigation.

Then there’s Emil Cioran, a philosopher and friend of G., who came up with this gem:

“It is an immense honor to have been chosen by him. Your role is to accompany him on the path of creation, and to bow to his impulses.”

I’m so glad that Vanessa has used writing to tell her truth, the very medium that her abuser used to distort her experiences with him.

This was a quick but difficult read. I spent a significant amount of time wanting to throw the book against a wall, mostly because the people who were infuriating me weren’t conveniently standing in front of me.

The fact that so many people essentially gave this man their blessing to continue being a serial predator astounds me. Because books are such an integral part of my life I feel justified in being personally offended that G. was encouraged to continue writing about his sickening behaviour, both by the French publishers who continued to print them and the people who actually paid to read them.

G. was not like other men. He boasted of only having had sexual relations with girls who were virgins or boys who had barely reached puberty, then recounted these stories in his books. This was precisely what he was doing when he took possession of my youth for his sexual and literary ends.

This is a well written book. Just make sure you have a punching bag handy when you read it.

P.S. This NY Times article has given me a glimmer or hope that G. may get to see the inside of a jail cell. Maybe all of his published books will be good for something after all: evidence.

Content warnings include domestic violence, gaslighting, grooming, mental health, paedophilia and sexual assault.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Already an international literary sensation, an intimate and powerful memoir of a young French teenage girl’s relationship with a famous, much older male writer – a universal #MeToo story of power, manipulation, trauma, recovery, and resiliency that exposes the hypocrisy of a culture that has allowed the sexual abuse of minors to occur unchecked.

Sometimes, all it takes is a single voice to shatter the silence of complicity. 

Thirty years ago, Vanessa Springora was the teenage muse of one of the country’s most celebrated writers, a footnote in the narrative of a very influential man in the French literary world.

At the end of 2019, as women around the world began to speak out, Vanessa, now in her forties and the director of one of France’s leading publishing houses, decided to reclaim her own story, offering her perspective of those events sharply known.

Consent is the story of one precocious young girl’s stolen adolescence. Devastating in its honesty, Vanessa’s painstakingly memoir lays bare the cultural attitudes and circumstances that made it possible for a thirteen-year-old girl to become involved with a fifty-year-old man who happened to be a notable writer. As she recalls the events of her childhood and her seduction by one of her country’s most notable writers, Vanessa reflects on the ways in which this disturbing relationship changed and affected her as she grew older. 

Drawing parallels between children’s fairy tales and French history and her personal life, Vanessa offers an intimate and absorbing look at the meaning of love and consent and the toll of trauma and the power of healing in women’s lives. Ultimately, she offers a forceful indictment of a chauvinistic literary world that has for too long accepted and helped perpetuate gender inequality and the exploitation and sexual abuse of children.

The Nesting – C.J. Cooke

‘Nature always protects itself by whatever means possible.’

Sophie has a new job as a nanny, caring for two adorable girls, Gaia and Coco. Their father, Tom, is an architect who’s currently working hard on an innovative new project in Norway. Sophie is also working hard, trying to make sure no one figures out that she’s not really Sophie, but Lexi, and that she’s not actually a nanny.

Although it appears to be the ideal escape from her real life, this new job isn’t as straightforward as Lexi had hoped. Tom’s wife died recently, supposedly by suicide, although Lexi suspects there’s more to the story. She’s also been told that the locked basement is off limits.

Even if you hear something down there, please stay out.

Hear something?

What the hell was in that basement?

Then there’s the Sad Lady, who Gaia keeps mentioning, who has holes where her eyes should be.

I’d only planned on reading a couple of pages to get a feel for the book but before I knew it I’d binged the entire thing. I enjoyed it much more than I expected I would but I am left with some question marks.

I adored the children but didn’t connect with any of the adults. The mental health components of Lexi and Aurelia’s stories intrigued me but I’m not a huge fan of unreliable narrators so I found myself questioning their realities more than I would have liked.

After such a build up, the ending felt rushed to me and some of the ways the story came together seemed a bit too convenient. Lexi’s backstory answered some questions I’d had but read more like an info dump, glossing over some pretty monumental events in her life.

With trees and a fjord, minimal sunlight and the tantalising possibility of spotting an aurora, the setting felt like its own character and made this an atmospheric read. This was helped along by the environmental message and the Norse folklore. The folklore included in this story were written by the author.

I’m interested in reading more books by this author and devouring some Norse folklore.

Content warnings include attempted suicide (including the method used), child abuse, foster care, mental health, miscarriage, sexual assault and suicidal ideation.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

It was like something out of a fairytale …
The grieving widower.
The motherless daughters.
A beautiful house in the woods.

Deep in a remote Norwegian forest, Lexi has found a new home with architect Tom and his two young daughters. With snow underfoot and the sound of the nearby fjord in her ears, it’s as if Lexi has stepped into a fairy tale

But this family has a history – and this place has a past. Something was destroyed to build their beautiful new house. And those ancient, whispering woods have a long memory.

Lexi begins to hear things, see things that don’t make sense. She used to think this place heavenly, but in the dark, dark woods, a menacing presence lurks.

With darkness creeping in from the outside, Lexi knows she needs to protect the children in her care.

But protect them from what?

Girl A – Abigail Dean

There are things that your body doesn’t allow you to forget.

The seven Gracie children are known in the media as Boys A to D and Girls A to C. Lex, our main character, is Girl A.

‘Girl A,’ she said. ‘The girl who escaped. If anybody was going to make it, it was going to be you.’

We join Lex’s story when she learns her mother, who recently died in prison, made Lex the executor of her will. It’s now up to Lex, in consultation with her siblings, to figure out what to do with the House of Horrors of their childhood.

I found it impossible to get the Turpin children out of my mind as I read this book. There are so many similarities, from the way they were treated to the photographs released in the media showing their matching clothes and distinctive hair, that I probably wouldn’t believe it if I was told the Turpin’s weren’t the inspiration for the Gracie’s in this story.

Number 11 was set back from the road. It had a grubby beige front and a garage, and a garden at the back. It was – as they would later say – a very ordinary house.

With the almost casual use of terms like “the Binding Days” and “the Chaining”, you know you’re not in for a light and fluffy read. It wasn’t as traumatic as I’d feared it would be, although it may be that I’m more accustomed to processing stories that feature child abuse.

I know enough information about each of the siblings to have an idea of how they’ve coped with the trauma they experienced as children but I would have loved to have delved deeper. Then again, the depth I was hoping for would probably transform this from a book of fiction to a psychology textbook. That’s just my long term fascination with nature vs. nurture talking.

I didn’t find the frequent timeline jumps disorienting, although some other reviewers clearly weren’t fans of it. Throughout the book we learn about Lex’s early childhood memories, the events that lead up to her escape and its immediate aftermath, and her life since. There’s not a lot of happy in this book, which makes the brief interactions with characters like Miss Glade, one of Lex’s teachers, shine that much brighter.

I figured out the twist quite early on. I don’t remember a specific sentence that pointed me in that direction, though. Instead, it felt more like an instinctual knowing. Even so, I didn’t find a lot to back up my theory before the reveal confirmed it. I’d like to be able to discuss the psychology surrounding it, particularly the impacts I suspect are related to it but aren’t explicitly mentioned, but I will instead ponder them quietly to myself because spoilers.

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, emotional abuse, neglect, physical abuse and self harm.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

‘Girl A,’ she said. ‘The girl who escaped. If anyone was going to make it, it was going to be you.’

Lex Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped. When her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her six siblings – and with the childhood they shared. 

The Shadow in the Glass – J.J.A. Harwood

Spoilers (in the Content Warnings)

‘I’d like to propose a bargain. I will offer you seven wishes. Whatever you ask for, I shall grant you. There are few limits.’

In this dark retelling, Eleanor is our Cinderella. After the death of her parents she was cared for by Mrs Pembroke, who Eleanor remembers fondly. It’s been three years since Mrs Pembroke’s death and in that time Eleanor’s once soft hands have reddened and cracked, the result of her new role as one of Mr Pembroke’s housemaids.

Eleanor’s life is a daily struggle; her body aches from the work she does, she is never warm enough and she is always hungry. Then there is the constant threat of Mr Pembroke himself. Reading is Eleanor’s only escape.

The dark spines of the books were rows of windows, waiting for the shutters to be pulled back.

Eleanor imagines what she would wish for if she were granted some like the characters in books she’s read. Eleanor wishes that she could live a life without poverty, hunger and danger.

Eleanor tried to be good, she tried to be kind, but she wanted so many things that she could feel them gnawing at her from the inside.

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Eleanor needs to be careful what she wishes for, though, because her fairy godmother isn’t the one who made you believe bibbidi-bobbidi-boo was a real spell.

No, wishes have some serious consequences in this fairytale.

Set in the nineteenth century, you know things are going to be pretty dire for women in general, but the teenagers who work at Granborough House also live with the constant threat of danger inside the house. I empathised with all of the housemaids but never connected with Eleanor. I didn’t like her, which made it difficult to become invested in the potential the wishes had to improve her circumstances.

I found some parts of the book repetitive and it felt like a longer read than it actually was, predominantly because the settings and the majority of the women’s lives were quite bleak.

I enjoyed anticipating how Eleanor’s wishes would be granted and seeing how she would react when she was given what she asked for, especially when expectation and reality didn’t line up.

I am left with a few unanswered questions but none that will keep me up at night. I expect the ending may not be for everyone but I loved it.

‘If you want something, my dear, you must ask for it.’

Content warnings include abortion/miscarriage, physical abuse and the consistent threat of sexual assault, along with mention of previous instances.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and HarperVoyager, an imprint of HarperCollins UK, for granting my wish to read this book.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A deliciously gothic story of wishes and curses – a new dark fairy tale set against a Victorian backdrop full of lace and smoke.

Once upon a time Ella had wished for more than her life as a lowly maid.

Now forced to work hard under the unforgiving, lecherous gaze of the man she once called stepfather, Ella’s only refuge is in the books she reads by candlelight, secreted away in the library she isn’t permitted to enter.

One night, among her beloved books of far-off lands, Ella’s wishes are answered. At the stroke of midnight, a fairy godmother makes her an offer that will change her life: seven wishes, hers to make as she pleases. But each wish comes at a price and Ella must decide whether it’s one she’s willing to pay …

Mercy House – Alena Dillon

Spoilers Ahead! (marked in purple)

“Two eighty-four Chauncey Street. It’s the one with the angel doorknocker. Arrive any time. Day or night. You can be safe.”

Sisters Evelyn, Josephine and Maria have run Mercy House for twenty five years, providing a safe place for women who are escaping violence. Although they are undoubtably effective in their mission, they don’t always play by the strict rules of the Catholic Church.

“It’s what we’ve feared,” Josephine said. “It’s him.”

Bishop Hawkins is coming to visit Mercy House. His visit is part of the ‘nun-quisition’, which puts the actions of nuns under the microscope because of their “secular mentality” and “feminist spirit”. (Never mind that the same church actively moves priests between parishes and pays hush money to sweep much greater offences under the rug.) Besides the fear that the methods they employ in their ministry won’t stand up to close scrutiny, Evelyn has her own personal reasons for never wanting to see this ‘man of God’ again.

When you think of nuns, Evelyn is probably not who you have in mind. She loves what she does but still grumbles at getting woken up in the middle of the night when it’s her turn to answer the door. Her beliefs aren’t as strictly tied to her faith as you’d expect and if there’s a loophole that will produce better results, you can be sure she’ll find it.

Actually, none of the Sisters who run Mercy House line up with stereotypical nuns. Would you ever expect nuns to have a conversation like this?

“Crap baskets,” Maria said.

“Yeah. Major crap baskets,” Evelyn agreed.

Love it!

As much as I loved the three Sisters, I hated Hawkins and spent much of the book overcome by a seething fury, imagining all of the ways that I wanted to see him suffer. You don’t want to just angry your way through a book though. Fortunately there were some amazing women who balanced out my rage with wonder at their courage and resilience. These women are dealing with shame and secrets, and trying their best to survive their past.

While I liked each of the residents of Mercy House, it was Desiree who stood out, and for good reason. Desiree has this in your face brashness. She acts tough but she’s vulnerable as well, although she definitely doesn’t want you to acknowledge that part of her. She speaks her mind and oftentimes says what everyone else is thinking. You’d want to be her friend but she’d make a fierce enemy so don’t get on the wrong side of her. She was responsible for most of my smiles while I was reading.

“This is sweet and all, but we were promised we’d get pizza if we came to church. So …”

The women of Mercy House have been through some really difficult life experiences, none of which are glossed over. Please be safe while reading, especially if you are likely to be triggered by any of the content.

Although it made the narrative neater, it seemed unlikely to me that during the course of the book, no new residents came seeking refuge at Mercy House after we met Lucia.

I don’t know if publishers don’t know about readers like myself but whenever there’s a website included in a book I’m going to look it up. There’s a website in this book, SaveMercyHouse.com, that doesn’t exist. Given the book’s themes, I would have loved to have seen a page that represented what was mentioned in the book, along with details of relevant helplines and organisations that readers could donate to.

I think I understand why the author left the story where they do. Although there are many characters who make their mark on the lives and/or hearts of the nuns who run Mercy House, this story really is Evelyn’s. Her story ends with possibilities for the future but overall the book didn’t give me the answers I hoped for.

😇 Did Mercy House stay open?

😇 Was Evelyn ever called Sister again?

😇 What happened between Evelyn and Eloise?

😇 Were there any consequences for the bishop?

😇 Were there any consequences for John?

😇 What happened to the five Mercy House residents we got to know?

What wonders can be built from broken stuff.

Content warnings include abortion, addiction, domestic violence, gun violence, homophobia, racism, self harm and sexual assault.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn stands a century-old row house presided over by renegade, silver-haired Sister Evelyn. Gruff and indomitable on the surface, warm and wry underneath, Evelyn and her fellow sisters makes Mercy House a safe haven for the abused and abandoned. 

Women like Lucia, who arrives in the dead of night; Mei-Li, the Chinese and Russian house veteran; Desiree, a loud and proud prostitute; Esther, a Haitian immigrant and aspiring collegiate; and Katrina, knitter of lumpy scarves … all of them know what it’s like to be broken by men.

Little daunts Evelyn, until she receives word that Bishop Robert Hawkins is coming to investigate Mercy House and the nuns, whose secret efforts to help the women in ways forbidden by the Church may be uncovered. But Evelyn has secrets too, dark enough to threaten everything she has built.

Evelyn will do anything to protect Mercy House and the vibrant, diverse women it serves – confront gang members, challenge her beliefs, even face her past. As she fights to defend all that she loves, she discovers the extraordinary power of mercy and the grace it grants, not just to those who receive it, but to those strong enough to bestow it.

The Patient – Jasper DeWitt

Spoilers Ahead!

But every hospital, even with patients like these, has at least one inmate who’s weird even for the mental ward.

Patient name: Joe

Date of First Admission: 5 June 1973

Patient’s Age at Time of First Admission: 6

Previous Treatments: Unknown

Current Treatments: Mild antidepressants and sedatives

Treatment Administered By: Nessie, Nursing Director

Diagnosis: Disputed; his “symptoms seemed to mutate unpredictably”

Patient Release Date: N/A

This type of patient is obviously insane, but nobody knows how they got that way. What you do know, however, is that it’ll drive you insane trying to figure it out.

When Dr. Parker H — begins working as a psychiatrist at Connecticut State Asylum he’s young, arrogant and confident he will be able to cure the patient the rest of the staff believe is incurable.

“So, tell me. Why do you want to attempt therapy on an incurable patient?”

Joe has been a patient at CSU for over twenty years and no treatments have worked. It’s gotten to the point where he’s almost entirely isolated due to the fact that the people who attempt to treat him either die by suicide or wind up admitted to CSU themselves.

I’ve also come to a conclusion: Whatever Joe has, I’m sure we can’t cure it. I don’t even think we can diagnose it. It’s obviously not in the DSM.

If it turns out that psychiatry isn’t the answer for this man, then who do we need to call instead?

A priest?

Mulder and Scully?

Moose and Squirrel?

(Hello, boys)

Dr H — adds instalments of Joe’s story on “a now-defunct web forum for medical professionals” over the course of seven weeks, his own recollections interspersed with physician’s notes. We’re told that all names have been changed.

The first instalment, where Dr H — describes CSU, was interesting but it made me wonder if the narrative was going to end up fairly dry. I needn’t have worried. I soon became hooked, searching the pages for clues that would help me diagnose Joe. I love stories set in asylums so I was probably always going to enjoy this book but I was surprised by how compulsive this read became.

I planned to only read the first entry to get a feel for the book before tackling something that publishes sooner. However, this one ended up jumping the queue and I am already trying to figure out when I will have time for a reread. I’m very grateful to have had the entire story to binge on; it would have frustrated me so much if I’d had to wait for new instalments to become available.

It’s been a couple of days since I finished reading and I want to compare theories with someone. Since I don’t know anyone else who’s read it yet I need to blurt something out here. But, SPOILER AHEAD! I have a theory about the end of the book but it’s based on a spoiler so PLEASE don’t read the next paragraph until you’ve finished the book.

⚠️ I have my suspicions about Jocelyn. I could be entirely off base here but I think she was killed by ‘Joe’ when he attacked her, and he then shapeshifted to become her. I want her pregnancy to result in a creepy human/whatever-Joe-is hybrid so I can hopefully find out more about what Joe actually is in a sequel (if there is one). ⚠️

I’m really hoping for a sequel as I have plenty of unanswered questions and need to know what’s next for Dr H — and Joe. I also need some information about Joe’s sister.

Content warnings include mention of addiction, alcoholism, bullying, death by suicide, domestic violence, mental illness, physical abuse, self harm, sexual assault, suicidal ideation, torture and the violent death of an animal.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for the opportunity to read this book.

Bonus Content: A prequel to this book, I used to get letters from my nightmares, was available to read on Reddit at the time I wrote this review. While most parts are available to read on the Reddit website I needed to download the app to read parts 3 and 8 due to sensitive content. While the prequel answered some of my unanswered questions I would recommend you read The Patient first. Had I read the prequel first I would have had a better idea of where Joe’s story was heading and this would have taken away some of the joy of discovery.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In a series of online posts, Parker H., a young psychiatrist, chronicles the harrowing account of his time working at a dreary mental hospital in New England. Through this internet message board, Parker hopes to communicate with the world his effort to cure one bewildering patient.

We learn, as Parker did on his first day at the hospital, of the facility’s most difficult, profoundly dangerous case – a forty-year-old man who was originally admitted to the hospital at age six. This patient has no known diagnosis. His symptoms seem to evolve over time. Every person who has attempted to treat him has been driven to madness or suicide.

Desperate and fearful, the hospital’s directors keep him strictly confined and allow minimal contact with staff for their own safety, convinced that releasing him would unleash catastrophe on the outside world. Parker, brilliant and overconfident, takes it upon himself to discover what ails this mystery patient and finally cure him. But from his first encounter with the mystery patient, things spiral out of control, and, facing a possibility beyond his wildest imaginings, Parker is forced to question everything he thought he knew.

Judy Moody #15: Judy Moody, Super Book Whiz – Megan McDonald

Illustrations – Peter H. Reynolds

“The Bookworms rule!”

Judy and her brother Stink are reading up a storm.

They, along with Frank, Sophie and Jessica, are the Virginia Dare Bookworms. The Bookworms are preparing to beat Braintree Academy’s team, the Bloodsucking Fake-Mustache Defenders, to the buzzer when they compete in the Book Quiz Blowout.

The winning team will not just earn bookish bragging rights. The Book Quiz Wizard’s Cup will be proudly displayed in their school’s library. This is no ordinary trophy – it lights up!

She, Judy Moody, was a book quiz whiz. A book wizard. A quizzard!

Judy is frantically practising her speed reading and Stink has his Cape of Good Answers, but when they learn of the other team’s secret weapon the Bookworms’ confidence is shaken.

“Will the Bookworms take a bite out of the Bloodsuckers? Or will the Bloodsuckers sink their fangs into the Bookworms on their way to the finish and take home the trophy?”

I always enjoy Peter H. Reynolds’ illustrations, in particular how expressive the children are.

In preparation for the upcoming competition, the Bookworms talk about oodles of children’s books, both classics and more recent bestsellers. As someone who has always sought out potential future reads in my current read, I was delighted to find a list of everything the Bookworms read at the end of the book. All six pages of them, with titles and authors, in alphabetical order! Some of my own childhood favourites are there as well – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlotte’s Web and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

N.B. The title of the copy I read is Judy Moody, Super Book Whiz. On Goodreads this is listed as Judy Moody, Book Quiz Whiz.

I won a copy of this book in a giveaway, which was hosted by Tracey at Carpe Librum. Thank you so much to Carpe Librum, Walker Books and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Books, books, books! Judy’s got books on the brain as she prepares for a totally RARE trivia competition. Has reading always been this exciting?

Judy Moody is in it to win it. Win the Book Quiz Blowout, that is. Judy and her brother, Stink, are two-fifths of the Virginia Dare Bookworms, and they’ve been reading up a storm to prepare for Saturday’s face-off against second- and third-grade readers from the next town. Judy’s trying out all kinds of tactics, from hanging upside down like Pippi Longstocking to teaching herself to speed read The Princess in Black, and Stink has fashioned a cape of book trivia sticky notes to help him remember all the penguins in Mr. Popper’s Penguins. But when Judy, Stink, and their fellow teammates discover the other group has a fourth-grader (no lie!), they get a bit nervous. Are the Bookworms up to the challenge?

Ingo – Helen Dunmore

I always feel so honoured when someone tells me about one of their favourite books. Books have been such an integral part of my life and I know without a doubt that my experiences, hopes, dreams and pain, all mingled together, make certain books more personally significant than others. If I learn about a book that was important to someone in their childhood then I’m likely to want to dive straight in.

That’s what happened with this book. I was 8 pages into my next read when I learned of this book’s existence. Within the hour I had found a copy at my library (I love my library!) and begun reading. Sorry, other read.

There’s a track that runs from their cottage to the cove. The beach disappears at high tide but Sapphire and her older brother, Conor, know the tides and spend a lot of their time exploring and swimming there. Their father, Mathew, often takes his boat (the Peggy Gordon) out, fishing and taking photos, but their mother, Jennie, is afraid of the sea. It’s always been the four of them. Until the day Mathew doesn’t come home.

I wish this book had been available when I was a child. I was also a child of the water and would always answer ‘dolphin’ when asked what animal I would be if I had any choice in the matter. I would have loved getting a glimpse of the world beneath the waves. Adult me got excited when I learned there would be Mer, wanting to learn all about their way of life and whether I could visit them.

I wish I was away in Ingo

Far across the briny sea,

Sailing over deepest waters

Where love nor care never trouble me –

The only thing that deterred me from wanting to find a way to Ingo myself was learning that Mer don’t have books. Even if the learning curve required to survive under water didn’t kill me, not having access to books would.

Being an only child I envied Sapphire and Conor’s bond. I wanted to like Faro but found him quite obnoxious. I have high hopes for Elvira, his sister, who I met but didn’t get to know during this book. I’m hoping to get to know her in later books in the series. Maybe Faro will also grow on me in time.

One person that doesn’t need to grow on me is Granny Carne. I need an entire book devoted to her story.

“Some say she’s a witch”

While there’s an underlying message about marine conservation, what really hit home for me was how authentic Sapphire’s loss felt.

You know how the sea grinds down stones into sand, over years and years and years? Nobody ever sees it, it happens so slowly. And then at last the sand is so fine you can sift it in your fingers. Losing Dad is like being worn away by a force that’s so powerful nothing could resist it. We are like stones, being changed into something completely different.

Difficult topics can sometimes be watered down in children’s books and I loved that it wasn’t here.

The thought of Dad is always in my mind somewhere, like a bruise.

The impacts of this loss were evident throughout the story but none captured the effects of Sapphire’s pain to me as simply and clearly as this:

Mum thinks I go and see Katie, or one of my other friends, but I don’t. I feel cut off from them, because their lives are going on the same as ever, but mine has completely changed.

Although I haven’t experienced loss in the specific way that Sapphire and her family do in this book I could easily relate to Sapphire’s need to protect herself from additional pain:

“You’re like a – like a sea anemone. If anyone comes close, you shut yourself up tight.” “That’s how sea anemones survive,” I point out.

The way the author described scenes and emotions continually activated my senses:

Sometimes I think that if adult quarrels had a smell, they would smell like burned food.

It’s strange how characters you’ve only just met can get under your skin. Two days ago I’d never heard of Sapphire. Today I’m going to be asking my library to buy the rest of her story.

“Magic’s wild. You can’t put a harness on it, or make it do what you want. Even the best magic can be dangerous.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

I wish I was away in Ingo,

Far across the sea,

Sailing over the deepest waters,

Where love nor care can trouble me …

Sapphire’s father mysteriously vanishes into the waves off the Cornwall coast where her family has always lived. She misses him terribly, and she longs to hear his spellbinding tales about the Mer, who live in the underwater kingdom of Ingo. Perhaps that is why she imagines herself being pulled like a magnet toward the sea. But when her brother, Conor, starts disappearing for hours on end, Sapphy starts to believe she might not be the only one who hears the call of the ocean. 

Now Entering Addamsville – Francesca Zappia

How could you convince people of the truth when they had already decided what version of the story they wanted to believe?

When George Masrell’s home is engulfed in fire in the middle of the night, with 80 year old George inside, Zora quickly becomes the town’s prime suspect. Zora is a Novak and in Addamsville Novak’s are well known, but not for anything good.

And when your mom disappears, your dad goes to jail, and the whole town hates you on sight, sometimes you get it in your head to start doing stupid things to ease that anger. Stupid things like hunting firestarters alone.

Unfortunately for Zora, she has a history with fires (but not the way the townspeople think) and recently had an argument with George so people aren’t exactly lining up to defend her. To make matters worse, the cast and crew of the TV series The Dead Men Walking are coming to film in Addamsville, and tagging along are their groupies. While there are ghosts, they’re not the most dangerous things in Addamsville.

I absolutely adored this book! It’s been on my radar for months and now that I’ve finished it I want to dive straight into a reread, which I probably would have if I hadn’t read a library copy that someone with impeccable taste wanted to read once I was done. More on that later.

There was so much I loved about this book and I don’t want to be a gushy mess nor do I want to spoil it for you so I’m going to try to restrain myself. First, I have to mention that cover! If my eyes were capable of speech the colours would have made them say, “Gimmee!” before I even knew what the book was about. Then the illustrations inside were so darn cute! I got a sense of who each character was from the pictures in the beginning and I loved the illustrations at the end of some of the chapters, particularly the axe and the Chevelle.

Speaking of the car, it practically was its own character in this book. It certainly had its own attitude anyway. The 1970 Chevelle was Zora’s mother’s car and she now drives it.

And if we’re talking about attitude, Zora was awesome! She’s tough, she’s rude, she’s smart, she’s angry, she faces her fears, she kicks butt when she needs to. She’s got the entire town either actively hating her or at least suspicious of her, yet she still puts one foot in front of the other. Anyone who continues to try to do the right thing when everyone expects the opposite from them earns my respect. She’s also asexual and I cannot tell you how happy that made me; I’ve found so few asexual characters in books so she got bonus points from me for that.

I loved or loved to hate almost all of the other characters. Sadie, Zora’s sister, and Grim, Sadie’s boyfriend, were the most adorable couple. Bach was intriguing and mysterious and I wanted to see him on every page. History nerd, Artemis, was a pleasant surprise; I initially thought she’d be a boring character but I really had fun getting to know her.

I had the urge to hiss at a couple of characters whenever I encountered them and it was actively hating Zora’s main opponents that spoke more to me about how invested I was in the story than anything else. Well, except for the fact that I chose to forfeit my annual ‘have to watch Halloween on Halloween night’ tradition to finish it.

I loved idea of the “Bell of Shame” at Happy Hal’s Ice Cream Parlor and I cheered Zora on when she used it to call out one character’s slimeball behaviour. I think we could all do with a “Bell of Shame” in our lives that we can ring to announce bad behaviour to those around us.

Some questions remain at the end of the book and I’d love the opportunity to visit this town again. I definitely need to inhale this author’s other books.

So, now we’re up to the later part of the review, which is essentially a whinge, so you’re quite welcome to bypass this bit. I have been so keen to read this book and was eager for someone to take my money so I could highlight to my heart’s content on my Kindle. Unfortunately this is just another in a long list of books my Kindle is hungry for but because it lives outside of the Promised Land, it’s/I’m not allowed to have it yet.

On the upside, thank goodness for libraries! I asked mine to buy a copy for me and, woohoo, they did! I’m still going to buy a copy for my Kindle as soon as the Kindle gods deem my country worthy but at least I don’t have to hold my breath to read it for the first time any longer. Thank you, lovely librarians!

Content warnings include mention of suicide.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Zora Novak has been framed.

When someone burns down the home of the school janitor and he dies in the blaze, everyone in Addamsville, Indiana, points a finger at Zora. Never mind that Zora has been on the straight and narrow since her father was thrown in jail. With everyone looking for evidence against her, her only choice is to uncover the identity of the real killer. There’s one big problem – Zora has no leads. No one does. Addamsville has a history of tragedy, and thirty years ago a similar string of fires left several townspeople dead. The arsonist was never caught.

Now, Zora must team up with her cousin Artemis – an annoying self-proclaimed Addamsville historian – to clear her name. But with a popular ghost-hunting television show riling up the townspeople, almost no support from her family and friends, and rumors spinning out of control, things aren’t looking good. Zora will have to read between the lines of Addamsville’s ghost stories before she becomes one herself.

Kingdom of Souls – Rena Barron

I don’t really know where to begin with this review. There was so much about Kingdom of Souls that I loved. I adored the world building, the rich mythology and learning how magic works in Arrah’s world, yet at the same time I was introduced to so many characters, tribes and gods that I found it difficult to keep track of them.

Enter my cheat guide. I had no idea who or what was going to be important later on and I was so overwhelmed in the beginning (up to about 20%) that I found myself frantically making notes about practically everyone. I’ve included these notes in this review mostly for my benefit in case I need a refresher course prior to embarking upon the second book but if they help you in any way, you’re welcome.

I’ve marked them as spoilers because I mention some characters that don’t even appear in this story until near the end. I’ve tried to avoid spoilery type info dumps here but please still be aware that you may read something in there you don’t want to know yet.

Arrah’s Family

  • Arti – mother, from the Mulani tribe, “Ka-Priestess of the Kingdom”
  • Oshe – father, from the Aatiri tribe, has a store in the West Market
  • Efia – sister

Arrah’s Family’s Staff

  • Nezi – porter, has burnt hands and a limp
  • Ty – matron, does the cooking, doesn’t speak to anyone, has “episodes”
  • Terra – has only been on staff for 2 years, does the rest of the chores, Arrah’s age, gossips

Arrah’s Friends

  • Hassana – female, beautiful, Aatiri
  • Rudjek – male, smells of lilac and woodsmoke
  • Sukar – male, tattoos on his forearms and shaved head glow when the magic is there or he’s near someone with the gift, Zu

Rudjek’s Family

  • Serre – mother, daughter of the North, her country is Delene
  • Suran Omari – father, Vizier
  • Uran – older brother, whose mind was broken during the Rite of Passage
  • Jemi – older brother, whose mind was broken during the Rite of Passage, killed a merchant
  • Crown Prince Kelechi – brother, two years older than Rudjek
  • Second Son Narmer – brother, Arrah’s age (16)

Rudjek’s Attendants

  • Majka – best friend, gendar, parents are commanders under the Master of Arms, 17
  • Kira – 17, father is the Master of Scribes

Kingdom Hierarchy

  • Almighty One – the most powerful position, held by Dereje, who was best friends with Suran before he rose to the throne
  • Vizier – second most powerful position, held by Suran Omari, “governs the Kingdom”
  • Ka-Priestess – the third most powerful position, held by Arti, “the voice of the orishas”

The Vizier’s Guildmasters

  • Master of Arms – Rudjek’s aunt and the Vizier’s twin sister, General Solar, “leads the military forces of the Kingdom: the gendars, the guardsmen, and the shotani.”
  • Master of Scribes – Ny (Kira’s father)
  • Master of Scholars
  • Master of Laborers
  • Artisan’s guild – Guildmaster Ohakim

Shotani – elite assassins, have some magic, live in the Kingdom

Crests – show rank or position

  • Omari – lion’s head
  • Sukkara (the royal family) – ram, “symbol of their blood connection to the sun orisha, Re’Mec”

Some of the Locations

  • Tamar – where Arrah, Rudjek and their families live
  • East Market – in Tamar, Kofi (Arrah’s friend) works there, charlatans are also there
  • West Market – in Tamar, Oshe’s store is there
  • Kefu – time works differently there

Tribes of Heka – Heka gives magic to the tribes

  • Aatiri – “do not walk or leap, for clouds of magic carry them. Grandmother’s silver locs coil on top of her head like a crown, and she wears a half dozen necklaces of teeth. The Aatiri are tall and lean with prominent cheekbones and wiry hair braided like mine.” Arrah’s grandmother, Malikah, is the Aatiri chieftain. Malikah’s grandmother was Yaaba. Other ancestors are Machie and Ara.
  • Kes – the smallest tribe. Their lands “border the valley to the northwest. Their diaphanous skin and near-colorless eyes remind me of the Northern people.” “lightning cuts across the sky and sparks dance on their skin”
  • Litho – “lies southwest of the Temple of Heka in the woodlands. White dust covers their bodies and vests of rawhide.” “The ground shifts beneath their feet, moving as gentle as ocean waves”
  • Mulani – “live the closest to the Temple of Heka.” “It was a Mulani woman Heka revealed his presence to when he first descended from the stars a thousand years ago. Now the Mulani chieftain serves as his voice. The position would belong to my mother had she not left and never looked back.” – their witchdoctors are all women. “They have broad shoulders, curvy bodies, and skin ranging from deep brown to alabaster.” The Mulani Chieftain is Arti’s first cousin
  • Zu – “from the mountains south of the Temple” “leap above our heads, their feet supported by air. Tattoos cover their bodies and they wear crowns of antlers”, the Zu seer is Barasa

Orishas – worshipped in the Kingdom, they have human and animal aspects

  • Esi – the sky god
  • Fayouma – the mother of beast and fowl
  • Fram – the balancer of life and death
  • Kekiyé – orisha of gratitude
  • Kiva – protector of children and innocence
  • Koré – moon orisha – female, twin god
  • Mouran – master of the sea
  • Nana – god that shaped the earth
  • Oma – orisha of dreams
  • Re’Mec – sun orisha – male, twin god
  • Sisi – guardian of fire
  • Ugeniou – the harvester
  • Unnamed – cobras around each of her arms
  • Yookulu – weaver of seasons

Cravens

  • Fadi – the group’s leader, male, excels at shifting
  • Juhanah – female – group’s best tracker
  • Lumo – Mensah’s twin, group’s best healer
  • Mensah – Lumo’s twin, group’s best fighter
  • Riham – female, shortest of the group, “can bend space and manipulate her environment”

Demons

  • Dayo – Demon King
  • Merka – possesses a cat before they possess a fisherman

Familiars – shadowy, shapeless and ever changing. They can only be seen by people with tribal blood. They’re believed to be relics of people destroyed by demons. “Wherever the Familiars go, death soon follows.”

I think it was because I was so bogged down in my note taking that I managed to entirely bypass the whole ‘connecting with any of the characters’ experience. One character that I thought I would form a connection with early on died soon thereafter and the villain I was hoping to cheer on didn’t make much of an impact on me.

Had I found the guide on the book’s website before I read this book instead of after, my reading experience may have been vastly different. I learned things from this guide that I missed entirely when I read the book. However, considering a couple of the characters illustrated on the cast page don’t exist in the first book, perhaps some of the guide also relates to later books in the series.

Impacts of trauma play out in various ways with multiple characters, which I found very interesting. Although it’s not mentioned by name it’s almost certain a few characters could be diagnosed with PTSD. The violation involved in the mind manipulation wasn’t that dissimilar to survivors’ experiences of sexual assault.

Some of Arrah’s thought patterns were quite repetitive. Hearing about how much of a disappointment she was to her mother and how she had longed to have magic her entire life provided me with sufficient underdog fuel to want her to succeed initially, but the amount of times she lamented both began to annoy me as the story progressed.

Although I witnessed plenty of action, with fight scenes, destruction and all round mayhem, it also felt like I spent a good portion of this book waiting around with Arrah for the next sequence of events to begin to unfold.

The ending was quite abrupt and left a ton of unanswered questions, which will hopefully be addressed in the next two books (yep, I found out after I started reading that this is the first book of a trilogy). However, I’m not entirely sure if I’ll still be as eager to know some of the answers, like what two of the characters were whispering about, by the time the second book is released.

If I reread this book I would spend less time focusing on the minutiae and try instead to form meaningful connections with the main characters. It felt like Arrah’s world was real and this is why I’ve given this book ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ instead of ⭐️⭐️⭐️. Had I been emotionally invested in Arrah’s journey this could have been a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ book for me.

Content warnings include abusive and neglectful parents, animal possession, blood magic, death by suicide, death of children and mind manipulation.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and HarperVoyager, an imprint of HarperCollins UK, for granting my wish to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Magic has a price – if you’re willing to pay.

Born into a family of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. But each year she fails to call forth her ancestral powers, while her ambitious mother watches with growing disapproval.

There’s only one thing Arrah hasn’t tried, a deadly last resort: trading years of her own life for scraps of magic. Until the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is desperate to find the culprit.

She uncovers something worse. The long-imprisoned Demon King is stirring. And if he rises, his hunger for souls will bring the world to its knees … unless Arrah pays the price for the magic to stop him.